Day 21 – Soho – Cambridge Circus – Shaftesbury Avenue – Wardour Street

Back after another enforced hiatus tackling Soho for the third and final time. This visit includes some of the most famous streets that bridge the divide between Oxford Street and Shaftesbury Avenue: Greek Street, Frith Street, Berwick Street and Wardour Street; as well as Brewer Street and Old Compton Street which intersect them. I touched upon the history of the area in the two previous posts and if you’re interested in a glimpse of Soho in in its 1950s cosmopolitan heyday this film from the BFI archives is well worth dipping into – Sunshine in Soho 1956.

Day 21 Route

For what seems like the umpteenth time I start out from Tottenham Court Road tube station only this time head south down Charing Cross Road. First site of interest on the western side is the building which up until 2011 housed St Martin’s School of Art (now to be found in Kings Cross). Aside from its famous alumni such as Alexander McQueen, Stella McCartney, P J Harvey and M.I.A. the building also holds the honour of being the venue for the first ever gig by the Sex Pistols on 6 November 1975.

Right next door, as you can see, is Foyles bookstore, often proclaimed as the most famous such emporium in the world. The company was founded by brothers William and Gilbert in 1903 and moved to this site just before WW1. From the end of WW2 up until the turn of the millennium (when she died) the store was effectively under the iron control of William’s daughter, the notorious Christina. This went well up until the 1970’s when (as admitted even in the in-store display) her increasingly idiosyncratic business decisions began to alienate both staff and customers. Happily, the family members who subsequently took over the reins have succeeded in revitalising the business and the store, with its five floors holding the largest stock of books in the UK, is a pleasure to wander around.

Next up is Cambridge Circus, home to the imposing Palace Theatre. This red brick monolith was commissioned by Richard D’Oyly Carte in the 1880’s and was intended primarily as a stage for English Grand Opera. Within a few years of its opening however it was sold at a loss and became a music hall theatre. The Palace Theatre name was introduced in 1911 and the first proper staging of a musical came in 1925 with No, No Nanette which ran for 665 performances. This of course pales beside the 2,385 shows racked up by The Sound of Music in the 1960’s, the 3,358 achieved by Jesus Christ Superstar in the 1970’s and the nineteen-year (1985 to 2004) residency of Les Miserables. The theatre is currently dark but is gearing up for another blockbuster when Harry Potter and the Cursed Child opens in July 2016 (initial run already sold out).

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Adjacent to the theatre is the Spice of Life pub (another haunt of mine in the Eighties) which is still doing its bit for the Soho jazz tradition with regular gigs in the basement.

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Head past the pub down Romilly Street where on the corner with Greek Street stands the Coach and Horses perhaps the most famous of all the many Soho watering holes. This fame is largely attributable to the 62-year reign of Norman Balon as the self-proclaimed rudest landlord in London which ended in 2006. During this period the pub counted the likes of Peter O’Toole, Francis Bacon and the staff of Private Eye amongst its regulars. And then there was the journalist, Jeffrey Bernard, whose hard-drinking exploits were immortalised in the successful play Jeffrey Bernard Is Unwell.

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Moor Street takes us back to Charing X Road.

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Head back into Soho along Old Compton Street then swiftly turn north up Greek Street. Up at no.48 is L’Escargot, reputedly the oldest French restaurant in London. Its founder, M. Georges Gaudin, originally owned a restaurant called Bienvenue further up Greek Street but when he moved his business to this site in 1927 it was renamed after his most famous dish. There was a snail farm in the basement and the plaster cast above the entrance depicts M. Gaudin riding a snail along with the motto “slow but sure”.

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Turning left down Bateman Street brings us into Frith Street where you will find Ronnie Scott’s Jazz Club. This has been a Soho institution since October 1959 (it started in Gerard Street and moved to its present location in 1965) and has played host over the years to such as Miles Davis, Count Basie, Sarah Vaughan, Stan Getz and Freddie Hubbard. Ronnie himself passed away in 1996. Only got to see the illustrious Mr Scott in the flesh on one occasion – a Roy Ayers gig in the early nineties – and true to form he bestowed his full repertoire of time-worn jokes on the audience. Amongst the old chestnuts there was a surreal gag to which the punchline was “a fish”. Sadly I can’t quite recall the rest of it.

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Cutting across the corner of Soho Square and nipping down Carlisle Street takes us on to another stretch of Dean Street. Here on the west side is a legacy of old Soho in the Wen Tai Sun Chinese News Agency (though sadly not for much longer it appears). Despite the name this is basically just an outlet for the sale of oriental gewgaws  – so if you need a nodding gold cat you’d better get down there quick. On the opposite side we have the Soho Theatre; which offers an eclectic and extensive selection of comedy and cabaret acts. Have been to see loads of stuff here (was there just last week in fact) and most of it has been pretty good.

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A little further down at no. 28 is a blue plaque marking the residency of Karl Marx (1818 – 1883) for five years in the 1850’s. Remarkably he earned a living during this time as European correspondent for the New York Daily Tribune. The building is currently occupied by the Quo Vadis restaurant – Quo Vadis ? being the phrase which Christian tradition attributes to St Peter upon meeting the risen Jesus when fleeing from Rome. A tenuous touch of irony given Marx’s staunch atheism.

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Having taken in further stretches of Romilly Street and Old Compton Street we emerge out of Dean Street and onto Shaftesbury Avenue, the heart of theatreland. And turning right we reach the Queens’ Theatre where the aforementioned “World’s Longest Running Musical” has sailed merrily along since leaving the Palace Theatre 12 years ago (can it really be that long ?)

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Turning right next up Wardour Street and almost immediately on the right is The Church of St Anne Soho. The design of this is attributed to Christopher Wren and/or William Talman and construction took place between 1677 and 1685. The original tower was demolished in 1800 (though the 1 ton clock bell, cast in 1691 and still in use, was retained) and a replacement completed within 3 years. Until the mid nineteenth century the churchyard was the final resting place of Soho’s inhabitants – up to 100,000 of them by some estimates. By then though the volume of burials had created such a sanitation problem that further interments were banned and in 1891 the churchyard was laid out as a public garden. The most famous post-mortem resident is the writer William Hazlitt (1778 – 1830) who died in a house on Frith Street.

There’s a final stretch of Old Compton Street before we retrace our steps up Dean Street. OCS and its several pubs are indelibly linked with London’s gay community though the best known of these, the Admiral Duncan (named after Adam Duncan who defeated the Dutch fleet in 1797) will always be associated with the heinous nail-bomb attack perpetrated in 1999.

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Sandwiched in between the pub and one of a fair few remaining “adult” emporia is the Algerian Coffee Store one of the survivors from Soho’s bohemian golden age (check out the film).

Strung between Dean Street and Wardour Street are Bourchier Street, Meard Street, Richmond Buildings and St Anne’s Court. The Soho Hotel is tucked away around the penultimate of these, providing a home for this giant (and rather impudent) cat in its foyer.

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On Meard Street there are indications that some visitors may have been a bit over-zealous in their search for the vestiges of Soho’s sleazier past.

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On the other side of the Soho Hotel is Flaxman Court named after the sculptor, John Flaxman (1755 – 1826) who lived on Wardour Street after his marriage.

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Now we’re back on that same Wardour Street which back in the day was renowned for being the centre of the British Film Industry and for its clubs and live music venues. Sadly (and I seem to be using that adverb quite a lot today) in both those regards it is a pale shadow of its former self. The Film industry connection is still evident in the names of many of the buildings – Film House at no. 142 Wardour Street was formerly the headquarters of the Associated-British Pathé film company and Hammer House at nos. 113-117 was home to the eponymous “House of Horror” production company from 1949 until the mid-eighties.

Check out the dapper gent with the plastic bag in front of Hammer House – at least someone’s making an effort to maintain the sartorial image of the area. In terms of the nightlife associations Wardour Street was in different eras home to the likes of the Flamingo Club, the Marquee and the Wag Club not to mention (as the Jam did in their A Bomb in Wardour Street) punk favourite the Vortex.

At the northern end of Wardour Street we do a quick to and fro of Sheraton Street where yet more Crossrail workers are enjoying a break.

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Cross westward into D’Arblay Street where the lunchtime queue is building up outside the Breakfast Club.

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Into Poland Street and I’m pleased to see that the QPark has kept these reminders of motoring days past.

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Turn left onto Broadwick Street and then northward on Berwick Street. On the cul-de-sac that is Livonia Street one splendidly Afro-ed temporary denizen is single-handedly reviving the spirit of the Seventies. Although you can’t tell from the photo she (?) has got a friend with her and I think they’ve just stopped for a coffee though the suitcase maybe tells a different story.

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Berwick Street itself is the location for two of the records shops I spoke of in the last post. Reckless Records and Sister Ray are now on opposite sides and both deal mainly in second-hand vinyl. The former relieves me of the largest chunk of change.

Have to retrace my steps down Broadwick Street to get to Lexington Street where I take a quick left into Beak Street. Although it was mentioned in a previous post I couldn’t resist making the Old Coffee House pub of the day. Delighted to see that it’s hardly changed a bit in the last 25 years or so and also to have my half of one of Brodies’ craft ales and brie and chorizo sandwich in splendid isolation (apart from the old school Irish barman).

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On leaving the pub turn south down Great Pulteney Street where the composer Joseph Haydn (1732 – 1809) lived for brief time.

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The ill-fated writer and physician, John William Polidori (1795 – 1821) also lived in this street. His most successful work was the short story “The Vampyre” (1819), the first published modern vampire story but even this was originally wrongly attributed to Lord Byron. Despite his early death (probably suicide brought on by debt and depression) present day interest in the gothic and the romantic has led to an increasingly high posthumous profile.

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Emerge on to Brewer Street opposite the Vintage Magazine Shop and just along from the Brewer Street Car Park which as well as being probably the most expensive car park in the country has set aside a space in which the Vinyl Factory outfit put on some of the most innovative art installations to be seen in the capital. (Unfortunately nothing on at the moment though).

So next it’s back up Lexington Street, cut through Silver Place on to Ingestre Place which leads into Hopkins Street which turn ends at Peter Street. Opposite is Green Court which is basically just an alleyway. Its in these passages (forgive me) that the seamier side of Soho retains a foothold.

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Not sure exactly what characterises a British adult shop as opposed to any kind of foreign adult or if Up West has a connotation that has previously eluded me but I didn’t venture in to seek enlightenment. These pigeons have probably seen it all before mind you.

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Walker Court which joins Brewer Street to Berwick Street is another case in point.

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This stretch of Berwick Street contains the market and yet again we’re talking shadow of former self (check out the film and you’ll see what I mean.)

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On the corner of Broadwick Street and Duck Lane is the third and final record shop of the day (and probably my favourite), Sounds of The Universe.

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Another couple of albums acquired and I have quite a haul to lug around the final lap of today’s journey. Here’s a selection :

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So that final lap is taken a quite a pace and involves heading back down Wardour Street, turning right into Winnett Street opposite the church, left down Rupert Street, right into Archer Street, up Great Windmill Street, right into Brewer Street again and then at the junction where the boarded up husk of one of Paul Raymond’s Revuebars forlornly sits proceed the full length of Rupert Street back to Shaftesbury Avenue where there’s just time to look back at the string of three practically adjoining theatres before escaping into Piccadilly tube station.

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Day 20 – Soho – Golden Square – Soho Square

Back for another trip round Soho this time. Something of a meandering route; largely dictated by my desire to avoid the records shops as this month’s vinyl budget has already been exhausted.

The name Soho is believed to derive from the cry “So-ho” which was heard around these parts back in the 17th century when it was a popular destination for the fox and hare hunting set. (A century earlier Henry VIII had turned the area into one of his royal parks). Its reputation as a slough of moral lassitude dates from the mid-19th century when it became a magnet for prostitution and purveyors of cheap entertainment. In the early part of the last century large numbers of new immigrants set up in business here and it evolved into a byword for a Bohemian mind-set as the exotic and the louche fused together.

Day 20 Route v2

Today’s starting point is Piccadilly Tube Station exiting on the north side of Regent Street. From here we head along the partly-pedestrianized Glasshouse Street before taking a left into Air Street. Emerge onto Regent Street again with a view across to the colonnaded arch that looms over the continuation of Air Street; an arch which took centre stage during the recent Lumiere London festival.

Turning right up Regent Street we pass the Café Royal. This was established in 1865 by émigré French Wine Merchant, Daniel Nicholas Thévenon (who later anglicised his name to plain Daniel Nichols). At one time it was claimed to have the greatest wine cellar in the world and swiftly became a favoured haunt of London’s fashionable set. The rich and famous, royals and commoners, continued to flock here well into the latter part of the 20th century, Burton and Taylor, Princess Diana and Muhammad Ali among them. In 1973 David Bowie famously retired his alter ego, Ziggy Stardust with a star studded party here, dubbed ‘The Last Supper’. Unlike some of the other places to be name-checked later I have never been inside.

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One final building on Regent Street to highlight is Westmoreland House on the west side dating from 1925. The statue in the bottom half of the picture of a girl, seated cross-legged, and holding a spinneret and threads is The Spinner, by the sculptor William Reid Dick and was commissioned by the Scottish clothing company of R. W. Forsyth.

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Turn back onto Glasshouse Street then head north up Warwick Street. Here we find the Church of Our Lady of the Assumption and St Gregory (two for the price of one). The original chapel on this site belonged first to the Portuguese Embassy and then the Bavarian Embassy before being destroyed in the anti-Catholic Gordon Riots of 1780. The current building was opened ten years later.

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At the end of Warwick Street we turn right briefly on to Beak Street and then right again down Upper John Street which feeds into Golden Square. The square was created at the end of the seventeenth century and, as alluded to earlier, was in its early years the address of a number of foreign embassies. There seems to be some debate as to whether the statue (no not that one) depicts George II or Charles II. It is attributed to Flemish sculptor John Van Nost who was around at the same time as George II but nobody seemed much inclined to commemorate that particular monarch (this would be one of only two statues of him in London) whereas Charlie the Second is represented all over the place.

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These days Golden Square is known for being a bit of a media hub – Sony Pictures and Clear Channel both have offices here as do M & C Saatchi and the owners of Absolute Radio.

We exit the square via Lower John Street turn left onto Brewer Street and then right down Sherwood Street.

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Before we end up back at Piccadilly Circus we veer left down Denman Street which ends at the junction of Shaftesbury Avenue and Great Windmill Street. The latter is of course renowned as the home of the Windmill Theatre. This opened as a small playhouse in 1931 but its notoriety was formed upon the introduction of the continuously running  Revudeville shows a year later. The USP of these performances was of course the nude tableaux featuring the Windmill Girls who because of licensing restrictions had to remain absolutely still for the entire time they were on stage. The merest twitch could have resulted in the theatre being shut down. Famously, shows continued right throughout WWII inspiring the strapline “We Never Closed” which was inevitably satirised as “We Never Clothed”. All this was the brainchild of the owner, Laura Henderson, and was celebrated in the 2005 Stephen Frears’ film Mrs Henderson Presents which has now been turned into a West End Musical. That isn’t of course playing at the Windmill Theatre itself which was reincarnated in the Seventies as the Paul Raymond Revue Bar and is now the Windmill International Table Dancing Club. (Just to be clear – this isn’t one of the places I’ve been to that I referred to earlier.)

Always amuses me that these establishments call themselves Gentlemen’s Clubs. Gawping at young ladies in the altogether isn’t the most obvious of gentlemanly pursuits. But we digress.

Somewhat incongruously there is a primary school at no.23. This dates back to the 1870’s and was originally associated with St Peter’s Church which was demolished in the 1950’s. The façade of the school building still features a bust of the 14th Earl of Derby who was a generous benefactor of the church.

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After stopping off at Ham Yard and Smithy’s Court we’re back on Brewer Street and a left then sharp right up Lower James Street brings us back to the eastern side of Golden Square. This leads inevitably into Upper James Street which ends at Beak Street opposite no.41 which was once the residence of the venetian painter Canaletto (1696 – 1768) whose work was featured way back in the Day 3 post. A few doors further along is the Old Coffee House pub, somewhere I did frequent back in the eighties so pleased to see it still there (ironically one of the few places that hasn’t been turned into an actual coffee house yet).

Next up, still continuing north, is Marshall Street which once boasted William Blake as a resident. No doubt he’d be delighted with what they’ve done to the place.

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Loop round Newburgh Street and Foubert’s Place where the shops are certainly more interesting than anything found on Carnaby Street which is literally yards away.

Back on Marshall Street is the Marshall Street Leisure Centre which opened in 2010 following a 13 year (?) refurbishment of the Grade II listed building which was the site of the Westminster Public Baths from 1850 to 1997. Back in 1850 the charges were 6d for a first class warm bath, 2d for a second class warm bath and half these prices for a cold bath. I’ll you to speculate as to the difference between a first and second class bath.

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Turning eastward on Broadwick Street we pass the John Snow pub named after the eponymous “father of epidemiology” (1813 – 58) whose findings in relation to the source of Soho cholera outbreak of 1854 saved the lives of countless Londoners in the second half of the 19th century. (Whether he was also the inspiration for the Game of Thrones character of the same name or that was either the Channel 4 newsreader or the former England and Sussex fast bowler we may never know).

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Head north again up Poland Street then duck in and out of Oxford Street via Berwick Street, Noel Street, Wardour Street, Hollen Street and Upper Chapel Street. Then back south down Dean Street, skirting more Crossrail disruption, as far as the Pizza Express Jazz Club (visited once).

Here we turn down Carlisle Street to reach Soho Square.  This dates back to 1681 when it was originally known as Kings Square on account of the statue of Charles II (what did I say earlier).  In 1875 the statue was removed during alterations by T. Blackwell, of Crosse and Blackwell fame who gave it for safekeeping to his friend, artist , Frederick Goodall. Goodall’s estate was subsequently purchase by the dramatist W.S Gilbert and it was in accordance with the will of Lady Gilbert that the statue was restored to Soho Square in 1938. The miniature Tudor-style house that sits in the centre of the Square was erected in 1925 as it was necessary to have a doorway above ground leading down to an electricity sub-station constructed under the gardens. It is now used as a gardener’s hut.

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In the north-western corner of the square stands the French Protestant Church of London. The church as institution was founded by charter of King Edward VI in 1550 but this building dates from the 1890’s. The yellow piece of paper pinned to the sign in the picture below reads “Adam and Eve – the first people not to read the Apple terms and conditions”. (Bit of ecclesiastical humour for you there).

A bit further round is a blue plaque commemorating the Jamaican-born nurse Mary Seacole (1805 -81) renowned for her work during the Crimean War.

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On the eastern side of the square is the Roman Catholic St Patrick’s Church. St Patrick’s was built on the site of Carlisle House, a mansion bought by Casanova’s mistress Teresa Cornelys, who went bankrupt running a music hall and allegedly a brothel there. The present Italianate building dates, like its Protestant counterpart across the square, from the 1890’s. A £3.5m restoration project was completed in 2011.

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On the Greek Street corner of the square is the House of St Barnabas, a charity founded in 1846 to aid the homeless and destitute. This Grade II listed building and chapel served as a hostel for the homeless into the 21st century but is now a private members’ club whose profits continue to serve the original charitable aims (have also been here once).

These coloured pigeons are the remains of a 2015 installation by artist Patrick Murphy.

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Like Golden Square, Soho Square has been a magnet for media companies. The British Board of Film Classification has offices here and the UK head office of Twentieth Century Fox occupies the south-western corner. Incidentally there is a separate Twenty First Century Fox corporation which was spun out of Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation in 2013. The website is http://www.21cf.com as the seemingly apocryphal story about http://www.21stcenturyfox.com being acquired by some clever dick in the 1990s who has refused to sell (or Murdoch has refused to pay out) appears to be true. Try it and see

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Leave the square finally via Batemans Buildings then back up Greek Street before heading beneath the Pillars of Hercules pub into Manette Street which is named after one of the characters in A Tale of Two Cities.

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On the right just beyond the archway is Goldbeaters House, presumably named after a trade carried on in these parts and on the left is Orange Yard, home to the spit and sawdust music venue, The Borderline. (And yes you’ve guessed it – I’ve been here just the once as well).

And that concludes today’s instalment.